Interview 25th June 2019
Sali Hughes; Journalist, writer, broadcaster and co-founder of Beauty Banks
“There are lots of people that don’t have a voice or a platform, and if the people who do aren’t bold enough to talk for them then no one will…”
Sali Hughes; journalist, writer, broadcaster and co-founder of Beauty Banks on tackling hygiene poverty, living kindly and using your voice for good.
We sat down to speak to Sali on a Tuesday afternoon, excited to chat to the influential beauty guru and charity co-founder on all things Beauty Banks. Sali is quick, well-informed and undeniably passionate about what she does. Her energy is warm and infectious, and after our call we found ourselves riled up and ready to take on the world, one toiletry at a time…
A Studio Of Our Own (ASOOO): For those of us who don’t know, could you please tell us a bit of information about Beauty Banks and its beginnings?
Sali Hughes: Beauty Banks began when me and Jo would meet up to talk business; she’s a PR that represents 30 of the world’s biggest beauty brands. We would meet every 8 weeks to talk about what’s new from them and what I might be interested in, and over time we found that these meetings would generally be taken over by us moaning about the state of the world. We were both feeling a bit mad in this post-Brexit, post-Trump era and simultaneously we would talk about how much waste there is in our industry. There are so many products lying about and we were aware that they weren’t going to the people that desperately needed them. The icing on the cake was when I went to Cardiff to make a documentary for the BBC about homelessness. Whilst I was visiting one shelter I saw a cardboard box full of odd toiletries; a single tampon, a mini toothbrush, a tiny soap from a flight or hotel. When I asked the staff what the products were for, they said that they brought them from home just in case a client came in and had their period or needed to prepare for a job interview. I took a picture of the box, texted it to Jo and said, “This is bullshit.” She agreed, and that was it.
Jo came up with the name Beauty Banks and I wrote my column on it the next day - and then it went completely bananas in a way that we hadn’t expected. Within 24 hours we’d been in newspapers, in Vogue, on the BBC and Sky – it was completely mad. We had no idea. We had to catch up quickly too, as we weren’t expecting to be at the head of a charity that’s now nationwide.
ASOOO: How does Beauty Banks work?
Sali Hughes: Beauty Banks takes toiletry donations from beauty brands, members of the public and donors across the industry and distributes them to registered charities around the country. These charities are normally food banks, women’s refuges, schools, NHS trusts and church organisations; places that all help people living in serious poverty. Beauty Banks doesn’t speak to people directly – we deal with existing charities within communities. We’re now in every major city across the country and lots of smaller towns, too.
Beauty Banks also tries to lobby government, so we work with an MP called Carolyn Harris to lobby for more consideration when it comes to hygiene poverty. There are currently 1.3 million families in the UK that have to go to foodbanks for emergency food supplies. When people have to choose between food and keeping clean they choose to eat; that’s how we’re wired. We feel that this shouldn’t be a choice, hence why there’s a lobbying and campaign element to what we do as well.
ASOOO: In previous interviews you’ve said that Beauty Banks’ ultimate goal is to not exist. Can you expand on this?
Sali Hughes: Beauty Banks is supplying what we believe should be essential supplies; essential to somebody’s dignity, basic human rights and self-esteem. We don’t think charities should be supplying these essential toiletries. We don’t see why a charity or members of the public should be donating tampons to a 13-year-old girl so that she can go to school. The UN has declared Britain to be in a poverty crisis, which, for a country as rich as us, is completely astonishing. It’s unbelievable to us that this didn’t get much press coverage at the time - last year the report submitted to the UN said that we were in a serious poverty emergency. Obviously, we’d love to not exist - we’d love to not be needed, but we also recognise that we’re nowhere near at being surplus to requirements. We’re very much in it for the long haul.
"The UN has declared Britain to be in a poverty crisis which, for a country as rich as us, is completely astonishing."
ASOOO: Beauty Banks aids and addresses hygiene poverty across the UK, improving hundreds of people’s lives every day. What steps can others make towards ending hygiene poverty, outside of donating to Beauty Banks?
Sali Hughes: People can volunteer their time. Very often I’ll get people on Twitter telling me that “poverty doesn’t exist”, that’s a very common belief in this country. People say, “just get a job and you’ll be fine, stop being so lazy.” Well, actually, that’s not the case - the most common form of poverty in this country is working poverty. It’s a growing concern.
People work all day; all the long hours and extra shifts and still can’t make ends meet. I really recommend that people go and volunteer somewhere, even if it’s just for an afternoon. You’ll be shocked and enlightened by the kinds of people that use foodbanks – for most people you’re only two missed pay checks away from homelessness. People become ill and can’t make money, people come out of the care system and don’t have the basic skills needed to earn money, people can suffer bereavement and lose their home; there are so many circumstances that can lead to poverty, and they’re circumstances that we as a society don’t really acknowledge. Homelessness is the most grotesque manifestation of about 30 different social problems; it’s linked to the prison system, the care system, domestic violence, addiction and lack of affordable housing in most communities. It’s about bereavement, sex work, poor education, mistrust of authority – you could go on and on and on. Homelessness is just the thing that we see at the end that is so horrifying and alien to us that we can’t imagine how it actually happens to anyone, but it can actually happen quite easily. Ultimately, I’d really love people to just acquaint themselves with this fact and realise the scale of the problem - then they may feel better able to help.
ASOOO: As well as helping those in need, you mentioned that Beauty Banks was set up because you and Jo noticed the colossal waste that’s a side effect of the beauty industry. What advice would you give to avid beauty fans on how to cut down their waste?
Sali Hughes: There are lots of different ways; I’ve just been on an international call about sustainability and there were some key messages that came through that I think everyone should take on board. The expert consensus seems to be that this idea of perfection is killing us. The idea that you shout at people for their plastic use, or you feel that everything has to be perfect and ecologically mindful or you’re not pulling your weight – that’s not true. Revolution comes from small acts and overall awareness. There’s so much power in just talking to your friends and not lecturing them, not tutting every time you see some plastic in their home or when they forget to bring reusables. We get this at Beauty Banks all the time. We’re trying to do something really positive for people and others will shout at us for plastics in toiletries. They’re asking people with essentially no options or autonomy in their life to make privileged choices – it’s completely inappropriate. You have to imagine; a lot of our clients don’t have hot running water. They simply cannot use reusables. We have to stop expecting people with the least choices in their lives to make the choices that the rest of us are able to make. Picking your battles is really important.
In terms of those of us that are privileged enough to make sustainable decisions, I’d ask if you really need the bits from a plane, or the toiletries from hotels? Why not leave them there for the next person or give them to us so that we can send them to people in need? I also don’t think that you can really change the world unless you engage with the big boys. It’s all very well ranting about big businesses and saying that you’re only going to buy things from a local woman who makes organic skincare - that’s all perfectly fine, but it doesn’t change the world. If you don’t award ethical initiatives by big companies they’ll continue to make the wrong decisions, and sustainable initiatives won’t be backed. For example; when Unilever is talking about dramatically reducing its plastic and water consumption, and when Loreal has some brands that are carbon neutral, if you say “Oh, well, Loreal are bad so I’m not going to buy anything from them” what you’re actually doing is showing these companies that ethical decisions aren’t profitable. If they think that these initiatives aren’t profitable they won’t continue with them, and then there’s no progress.
I suppose the common thread in everything I’m saying is if you expect perfection you hold things back. Sustainability comes from compromise; it comes from mindfulness and it comes from acceptance - that’s when we’ll see the greatest change.
"The expert consensus seems to be that this idea of perfection is killing us...Revolution comes from small acts and overall awareness."
ASOOO: We work closely with Gabby from Bloody Good Period, whose mission is to end period poverty by providing period supplies to those who can’t afford them. A lot of your goals and values are in line with each other, and both your charities spark a lot of debate when it comes to period products and reusables. What has been your experience with this?
Sali Hughes: [Referring to moon cups] We just can’t get rid of them. People send them to us, and that’s very nice of them, but there’s an inherent judgement that comes with them too. At Beauty Banks we feel that people living in serious poverty should be able to have the same autonomy that the rest of us experience. There’s something that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable when it comes to telling people what they should do with their vaginas. It just makes me feel really icky; you wouldn’t go up to a middle-class white woman in the street and tell her what she should do with her period. It’s such a privilege I can’t bear it.
Quite often people say to us “Oh, it’s awful that you’re distributing period pads - you should be distributing moon cups”, and it’s like well, that’s completely inappropriate. It’s completely inappropriate for volunteers in a food bank to lecture a 13-year-old on what they should put in their vagina. You’re expecting people who have the least choice in their lives to make this educated, ecologically driven decision – these people can’t eat. There’s also the issue that you’re relying on a nationwide volunteer network to essentially become period experts and educators - that’s not on, either.
ASOOO: Beauty Banks is a political charity in the sense that you’re addressing and aiding an issue which needs to be sorted by the Government. If you could sit down with one person and chat to them about these issues, who would it be and why?
Sali Hughes: I suppose on the highest level you would want to discuss it with the Prime Minister. I would like some acknowledgment that this level of poverty not only exists but is quite common. I’d also like recognition that there are contributing factors to poverty that the Government could actually deal with.
I hosted and presented a research day about poverty in Parliament about ten months ago, and whilst I was there I interviewed a Cabinet Minister on stage. I was quite stunned by his outlook - he just thought that people should be fine. There was no acknowledgement of how our Government policy can leave people in a very vulnerable position, and there was a constant return to autonomy. “Well, people should be autonomous. People should be independent, and we want to empower people to live their lives in this way.” But how do you tell somebody that is working 12 hours a day that they’re not doing enough to get themselves out of poverty? This is the case for a lot of people. I met someone at a homeless shelter in Cardiff who doesn’t actually stay in the shelter; he’s in temporary accommodation. He goes to work at a high street retailer every day at 6am, does a full day shift and then goes to the shelter after work to wash his uniform and have a shower, all because he doesn’t have hot running water. He gets his uniform ready, he goes home, he has little sleep and then he gets up and does the whole thing all over again. How can you tell someone like that that they’re lazy, that they’re not doing enough?
"I would like some acknowledgment that this level of poverty not only exists but is quite common."
ASOOO: What has been the most memorable donation Beauty Banks has received?
Sali Hughes: We regularly receive lovely letters from kids that are really heart-warming. We recently had a group of Girl Guides collecting a load of toiletries for us, and alongside their donations they sent us the most beautiful letter; there’s something very moving about children acknowledging the difficulties of other children. We also once received a letter from a little girl called Daisy. She told us how she’d been saving up for ingredients to make a huge batch of slime, but when she went to the shops she decided to buy us some deodorants instead. Stories and letters like that really move us – they often make us cry.
Sometimes we get letters from recipients that are really moving too. The company Ted Baker regularly gives us lots of stuff, and once they sent us tonnes and tonnes of toiletries, such as body wash and shower gel. When we sent them out one boy wrote back to us, saying that he had received a tube of Ted Baker shower gel and thought it was really posh. In his note he said “Thank you so much for my Ted Baker shower gel. It’s the first time I’ve had a nice thing. The other kids in my school have nice things all the time, and now I feel really special.” These things really matter. That’s the thing about Beauty Banks – I know we mainly ask for everyday essential toiletries like deodorant, soap and toothpaste, but we also always need other ‘extra’ items like make-up and fancy toiletries.
The make-up brand Huda once gave us 1000 lip-glosses, worth about £25 each. We then gave them out to schools, and afterwards we received lots of letters from students saying that they’d never had anything like it. Letters came in from children that said having this lip-gloss in their backpack made them feel like a million dollars. Sometimes those are the items that matter just as much as a soap and toothpaste. The fancier things are important because lots of people never have any treats due to the circumstances that they find themselves in. These people deserve to feel special too.
ASOOO: When we work with our clients, our three aims are to get them to communicate in a way that's nice, brave and honest: they’re the tenets of our agency. How do you think being nice, honest and brave has helped you get to where you are today?
Sali Hughes: I think it’s literally everything. It’s certainly everything in my career; I’ve always said that if you’re not nice you’re in trouble because you’ll work with everyone again. In my industry you meet and work with the same people repeatedly. If you need help and you haven’t been nice, well, then you’ve burnt a really important bridge. It’s also just generally harder to be a pain in the arse!
The biggest example of this relating to Beauty Banks is in our relationship with Design Bridge, the studio that does all of our design work. They actually got in touch with us and wanted to do it all for free! They later told us that the reason for this was because their head writer had written to me 10 years ago when she finished University. She’d told me that she wanted to be a writer and asked for my advice, and I’d replied to her by writing a long letter of encouragement. I actually have no memory of doing this, but since then she’s become a successful writer and hadn’t forgotten about my reply. Ever since she’d felt this sort of ‘good will’ towards me - hence the free help with Beauty Banks. That’s just one very clear example of how doing a nice thing can yield huge rewards later down the line.
Honesty – my entire career has been based on this. I always think that if you’re not honest then it will cost you in the end. I think Beauty Banks was so successful so quickly because people already thought I was an honest person. They trusted me and so they trusted that this was worthwhile from the beginning.
And brave; well you don’t get anything unless you ask, and you don’t get anything unless you’re bold. There are lots of people that don’t have a voice or a platform, and if the people who do aren’t bold enough to talk for them then no one will. Bravery is really important – after all, the worst people can say is no.
Visit Sali and Beauty Banks and say Hey! From the ASOOO team:
Beauty Banks Facebook: /thebeautybanks/